2015 has not gotten off to a good start for science fiction cinema: the Wachowskis’ long-anticipated space opera Jupiter Ascending crashed and burned like a heavily damaged Star Destroyer. That doesn’t bode well for original sci-fi filmmaking in the long run — at least the kind that costs hundreds of millions of dollars — but that’s not necessarily a sign of things to come this year (and indie release Predestination was a small gem if you could track it down).
The next 11 months have more original films on the way in the shape of Chappie, Ex Machina, and Tomorrowland, while blockbuster sequels like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road look as promising as they could possibly be. And let’s not forget the 800-pound Wookiee in the room — that minor movie coming from J.J. Abrams at the end of the year, the name of which escapes me at the moment.
There is a lot of potentially great sci-fi entertainment coming our way this year, both from the bigger studios and indie distributors (a tip of the hat here to High Rise, Air, and Z for Zachariah, all three of which we cannot wait to see), so let’s take a look at the dozen or so major entries on tap for the rest of 2015 — and hope that at least a handful of them can provide us with the sense of wonder and awe that the best of the genre delivers.
Chappie (March 6, 2015)
Despite the crushing disappointment that was Elysium, we still remain very interested in the work of writer/director Neill Blomkamp. After all, District 9 remains a smashing debut in our book and everyone is allowed a stumble or a sophomore slump. Chappie — which is about an incredibly advanced robot, programmed to think and feel, who becomes the crucial pawn in a struggle between good and evil human forces — takes Blomkamp back to his South African roots and hopefully finds him reigning in the visual overload and brutal editing that sunk Elysium.
Hugh Jackman is always a welcome presence, as is Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley (as the voice of Chappie), but the presence of South African rappers Die Antwoord with roles in the film worries us as being more gimmicky than anything else. But we’re pulling for Blomkamp nevertheless.
Ex Machina (April 10, 2015)
After writing a lot of great genre films in the past 13 years, including 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and the severely underseen Dredd, Alex Garland steps up for his directorial debut with this eerie-sounding drama about a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who is invited to the compound of his reclusive boss (Oscar Isaac) where he is tasked with testing a new humanoid artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to see just how “alive” she is.
Garland always brings a sharp intelligence to his work, so we’re interested to see how he fares as a director for the first time with what sounds like a very intriguing premise and a great cast. Don’t expect a lot of explosions or over-the-top action sequences from this one, but instead an intense, cerebral thriller that touches on the nature of existence and consciousness.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1, 2015)
With the possible exception of that little space film that’s showing up at the end of the year, this has to be the most hotly-anticipated blockbuster of the year. And with good reason: everything we’ve seen so far — the Avengers at each other’s throats, Iron Man and Hulk going mano-a-mano on a city street, the diabolical Ultron leading armies of his own android drones in a war against humanity — tells us that this will be the superhero film to beat until at least next year when Captain America: Civil War rolls around.
And yes, this is a sci-fi film for sure: you have aliens (Thor), artificial intelligences (Ultron and Vision) and genetically enhanced or mutated humans (Cap, Hulk, the Twins) running around and presumably kicking the crap out of each other. With Joss Whedon at the helm again, we’re looking forward to the biggest, most badass slice of Marvel insanity yet.
Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15, 2015)
The footage we’ve seen from this film (especially in that glorious trailer) point to this being the most inspired piece of lunacy coming to the screen this year. The original Mad Max trilogy set a standard for bleak, existential post-apocalyptic craziness, and director George Miller doesn’t look like he’s lost a step in the three decades since — and in fact this one goes bigger than the first three combined. Tom Hardy is great casting as Max, and we’re looking forward to seeing Charlize Theron do some serious ass-kicking as well.
Could it all go wrong? Sure it could — the movie’s production was very problematic, so it’s quite possible that it will all crumble apart on the screen as well. But on the other hand: Monster vehicles! Bizarre-looking savage tribes! Explosions! Violence! Atmospheric disturbances! Welcome back, Max…we’ve missed you.
Tomorrowland (May 22, 2015)
Neck-in-neck with Star Wars VII for winner of the award for “Year’s Most Mysterious Film” is Tomorrowland, directed by Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and written by Bird and Damon Lindelof (Prometheus). The premise of the film has slowly but surely come into focus over the past year and a half, ever since the pair first revealed that they were inspired by a box of odd Disney memorabilia supposedly forgotten about since the 1950s.
We also know the movie involves George Clooney as an embittered technician of some sort who shows a young girl (Britt Robertson) the way into an alternate dimension that has progressed far beyond our civilization, yet secretly affects it. The concept is interesting (even with the built-in Disney promotion) and Bird is terrific, but Lindelof always seems to come up with good ideas that crash land in the third act. Will the movie have some teeth or play as some kind of fuzzy Amblin throwback? The answer lies in the future…in Tomorrowland.
Jurassic World (June 12, 2015)
Sixteen years after we last left Isla Nublar, it’s time to return to Jurassic Park. Only things have changed: the park is now open, throngs of tourists are lining up to see live dinosaurs and business is humming along…what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, and we don’t just mean that in the fictional sense. Indie director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) has been handed the keys to the resort, and it remains to be seen whether he can provide the showstopping dinosaur antics that livened up even the generally dreadful The Lost World.
Leading man du jour Chris Pratt and the Jurassic brand are almost certain to put asses in seats, but the trailers admittedly have a been-there-done-that feel to them. Even the addition of the deadly new hybrid dinosaur may just end up the equivalent of repainting the same old rollercoaster.
Terminator: Genisys (July 1, 2015)
An even bigger question mark than Jurassic World in terms of relaunching a stalled franchise, Terminator: Genisys doesn’t seem to have a clear grasp on what it’s supposed to be. Is it a remake? A reboot? A sequel? The answer, judging from what we’ve seen so far, is a little bit of all three, as the film appears to take elements of both the 1984 classic and its legendary 1991 sequel and give them a slightly different spin — meaning the original, perfectly self-contained story has branched off yet again into an alternate timeline.
Nevertheless, Emilia Clarke looks as if she cuts a striking figure as Sarah Connor, and the curiosity factor of seeing Arnold again in his signature role — and perhaps even doing double duty as an old and new version of the T-800 — is enough to get us into the theater, and the studio (Paramount) is hoping it does the trick for lots more people too.
Fantastic Four (August 7, 2015)
No matter how it may turn out or what the bad buzz may or may not mean to the film, one thing’s for sure: this reboot of the once-treasured Marvel property is taking things in a solidly science fictional direction. To be sure, that was always part of the Four’s DNA, but director Josh Trank and screenwriter Simon Kinberg are sending our heroes into an alternate dimension (taking their cues from the Ultimate comics) instead of blasting them with space radiation — a more “grounded” way to trigger their transformation, if such a thing is possible.
With director Josh Trank talking recently about being inspired by the early body horror of David Cronenberg in terms of showing how Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben are mutated, this seems to be getting about as far away from those original, colorful Kirby/Lee funnybooks as it can. This one could go either way, but again, the curiosity factor outweighs all other considerations.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (November 20, 2015)
No one likes watching half a movie, and while Mockingjay – Part 1 wasn’t exactly a bomb (uh, no, it’s one of the top three grossing movies of 2014), there was a sense that a certain percentage of moviegoers stayed away with the idea that they’d catch it on video before seeing the finale. Those of us who did attend probably wished we had done the same thing.
Having said that, the series is still running at a consistently high standard of quality, and like everyone else — whether you’ve read the books or not — we’re interested to see how director Francis Lawrence and star Jennifer Lawrence bring the story to its violent and cynical conclusion. With any luck, we’re past the wheel-spinning feel of Part 1, and we hope that the filmmakers and cast will break the curse of other recent story finales (cough, The Hobbit, cough) by making this one a winner.
Midnight Special (November 25, 2015)
Here’s what we know about Midnight Special: it’s the first studio production written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the indie filmmaker who made the excellent Take Shelter and Mud; Nichols has described it as a “sci-fi chase” movie; and the cast includes Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kristen Stewart, and Adam Driver.
We don’t know much about the plot — it involves a father desperate to protect his “gifted” eight-year-old son from the government — but with that cast and the involvement of the supremely gifted Nichols, we don’t need to know much more. One of the best new directors of the last few years dabbling in sci-fi is enough for me.
The Martian (November 25, 2015)
Director Ridley Scott returns to the genre that has given him so much, even if his last sci-fi outing, Prometheus, was a colossal disappointment. This one is based on Andy Weir’s novel and stars Matt Damon as an astronaut who must find a way to survive after he is accidentally left behind on the first manned mission to Mars.
A great supporting cast (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels), an excellent screenwriter (Drew Goddard), and Scott’s usual incredible technical and visual wizardry are all points in the film’s favor; we just can’t help but worry about Scott’s ability to pull them all together into a good film after a recent streak of disappointments that also included The Counselor and the ludicrous Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (December 18, 2015)
Even in a year packed with Avengers, Terminator, Jurassic Park, and Hunger Games sequels, it really feels like the next 10 months are all a prelude to this moment. Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan have been tasked with launching the next phase of the Star Wars saga, but of course Abrams’ obsessive secrecy has kept all but the most basic information off the grid.
We do know that the movie will bring back our beloved Luke, Han, and Leia for the first time in more than 30 years, while introducing the next generation of rebel heroes and (Imperial? Sith?) villains as well. There’s no question that the moment we heard the iconic music and saw the Falcon soar in the brief teaser we’ve gotten so far, a chill ran up our spine and our heart thumped a little louder. Note to JJ and Larry: no pressure, guys. No pressure at all.